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Electric cars may not be solution to all world problems

Flame storm fails to alter reality

Then we come to the awkward question of service life. Again, experience with mobiles and laptops suggests that performance is going to worsen significantly as the charge cycles mount up. Presumably the 200 to 300 mile, four seconds 0-60 figures are for a new battery. Does that mean that after a few years a $100,000 Roadster is going to be badly degraded?

Tesla claims that the Roadster's powerpack has a "useful" life of a hundred thousand miles. A petrol car isn't going to be in spanking shape after that sort of distance, but it'll potentially still have a lot of use left in it, and its performance won't have dropped off in any noticeable way. The Roadster is going to need the main component of its power train replaced, every time.

Tesla assures us that its lithium-ion batteries are fully recyclable, which is just as well with 900lb of them going in the green bin after every 100,000 miles of motoring. One does note that reprocessing of li-ion batteries is done by fairly energy-intensive heat treatment, but that should be OK in a future where electric power is reasonably priced, green and plentiful (in any other future, Tesla-type cars make no sense at all).

Normally it would be time to say at this point "but this is first-generation kit – soon things will be much better". Not this time. Electric cars are primarily battery packs. Batteries have had decades of work and billions of dollars poured into them by the laptop and phone makers. They are fairly mature technology.

Barring a sudden leap forward in high-temperature superconductors or something else out of left field, the Tesla Roadster should be fairly representative of what can actually be done. Or, to put it another way, what's on the cards for now. The Roadster looks like a pretty cool ride, and Tesla motors is a laudable endeavour, but they aren't going to bring in green motoring all on their own.

Neither the Roadster nor its successors are going to replace cars or trucks for long journeys nor multiple medium-distance journeys per day. This leaves electric wheels stuck with the commuter, school run, milk float and shopping jobs, and a certain kind of high-end supercar customer. Anyone who wants to do more than 250 miles in a day at all often – to visit friends or family, do deliveries, make meetings, carry freight, go touring – is quite likely to buy something else.

Electric vehicles have always had their place, and most likely always will. The electric milk float came in decades ago. Li-ion or other near-future automotive battery tech may very well give all-electrics a bigger, even a significant market share in time. But all-electric vehicles can't yet replace huge segments of the existing carbon-powered motor industry.

If we're worried about global warming or Western dependence on foreign resources, we need a big majority of road vehicles to move away from fossil fuel, not just some classes of them for some jobs. This means that hydrogen, biofuels, or some other sort of kit will have its place, probably alongside or hybridised with electric vehicles or – just perhaps – largely bypassing them. ®

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